The Heart of Christmas
Never Mind the Title

I almost didn’t get to screen The Heart of Christmas—and that would have been a shame!  As I noted in my review of Snowmen earlier this week, Jenn and I had listened to Matthew West’s CD of the same name and thought, “Wow! That’s a depressing Christmas album.” We then sat down to watch a screener of Heart… only to find it blank.  So we watched Snowmen instead… and the narrator of that film is a self-described dead kid.  Huh.

Well, as luck would have it, another screener of Heart of Christmas appeared in the mail yesterday… and this one was not blank.  (It did, however, cause my DVD player to lock up four times.)  Curious about the status of the film’s release, I decided to check it out on Facebook… and the film’s official page was nearly empty, with only a handful of fans.  I thought maybe I’d looked up the wrong film, so I searched again… and came up with Matthew West’s album page.  It was emptier yet, with even fewer fans.

Apparently, it’s been hard getting the word out about this film, which is, as near as I can tell, a marginally fictionalized account of young Dax Locke’s ill-fated battle with Leukemia. 

Jeanne Neilson as Julie Locke in The Heart of ChristmasThe story is pretty straightforward.  By the time he’s two years old, Dax is already exhibiting signs of thwarted development, and x-rays reveal he’s got a tumor in his brain.  Tests quickly diagnose Leukemia.  His parents’ lives are naturally derailed, and for more than a year he’s in the care of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis.  The made-for-TV movie doesn’t follow Dax, though—it follows Dax’s mom Julie, her struggles to make a “normal” life in the context of chronic hospitalization and caregiving, her battles with patient care systems that are more about systems than about patients or families, and coming to grips with the “ultimate bad news” that West writes about in the title song.

The narrative is somewhat awkwardly staged as the dramatization of Julie’s journal, as read online by fellow Peoria resident and upwardly-mobile Megan.  The latter’s life is a frenzy, the product of two working parents who have too much stuff and too little time for their kids.  As Megan races through Julie’s journal, though, she discovers how out of whack conventional priorities are in the face of illnesses that can run us over like runaway dump trucks.  Life is unpredictable, and no amount of control-freak behavior can guarantee fending off any number of disasters.  What good are college funds and retirement accounts if you’re dead, or if you’ve alienated everyone in your family along the way?

Jenn and I have, of course, been sort of living the Lockes’ story for the last nine years now—not cancer, though we have often “wished” that Jenn’s case were that “simple.”  But we know the various plotlines and character arcs that Heart of Christmas depicts—repeated hospitalizations, trips to the ER and ICU, suppressed immune systems, chronic infections, surgeries, transfusions, sepsis—and director Gary Wheeler does a fine job of capturing the uncertainty, frustration, anger, comfort, joy, and peace that can all be found in the context of hospitals and potentially terminal illnesses.

I get the feeling, though, that the defective screeners and slipshod social media campaigns for this project are all part of the same process that yields a film which feels rushed into production.  Candace Cameron Bure, who plays Julie, and Matthew West are both listed as producers on this film—so in all likelihood, the producers have some personal stake in Dax’s story, one which “just had to be told.” And with big names like Cameron’s and West’s behind it, the rather thin script was greenlit and rushed into production with an ill-advised hard-and-fast marketing-driven due date.

It’s not that any of the performances or script/direction decisions feel perfunctory or out of place.  This is the second “world premiere” film that Wheeler has made for GMC, and he’s an award-winning director and producer with solid talent.  Much of the film, though, feels almost improvised, like everyone was simply having to make do under the circumstances—rather than having a chance to really think through scripting, staging, and character relationships.

The effect is rather telling in one Christmas-dinner sequence.  The principal players all seem to have figured out how they should interact; but other family members present at the celebration come off as TV commercial extras plopped down in the middle of an intimate gathering.  The effect is rather jarring.

As a fundraising tool for Dax’s foundation at St. Jude’s, however, the film works well enough.  I actually wish that Virginia Mason here in Seattle would find a way to tell stories about its own patients in this fashion.  There are plenty of heroics that go on in these institutions, but too often all we hear about is insurance company graft and malpractice lawsuits.  So kudos to the producers for telling an uplifting story of hospital care.  We could use more of these.

If you happen to be free Sunday night, you might consider putting on the program while you decorate the living room or work on your Christmas card list.  Cameron and Jeanne Neilson are very appealing as the female leads here, and Dax’s story is certainly worth hearing about.

But really… this film has precious little to do with Christmas.  The connection is incidental at best.

The Heart of Christmas airs Sunday, December 4 on GMC at 7 & 9 Eastern.

The Heart of Christmas is rated TV G.  Due to the sensitive subject of real live death, I’d call it PG.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a (somewhat defective) promotional screener of The Heart of Christmas.